Protomartyr

TrackAlbum
Jumbo'sNo Passion All Technique
In My SphereNo Passion All Technique
MaidenheadUnder Color Of Official Right
EllenThe Agent Intellect
Pontiac 87The Agent Intellect
A Private UnderstandingRelatives In Descent
CaitrionaRelatives In Descent
The ChucklerRelatives In Descent
Half SisterRelatives In Descent
Processed By The BoysUltimate Success Today

Protomartyr photo 1

Clockwise from top left: Scott Davidson (bass), Joe Casey (vocals), Greg Ahee (guitar), Alex Leonard (drums) – photo: Doug Coombe

 

 

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Protomartyr playlist

 

Contributor: Paul Jenkins

Having spawned everything from Motown to MC5, the Stooges to Eminem, Alice Cooper and techno music, you’d think Detroit’s musical well might have run dry by now. Protomartyr are the latest act to soundtrack that city’s mix of death, decay and desperation. Formed in 2010, and soon to release their sixth studio album, their music – a mix of post-punk and melodic hardcore – provides a thrilling backdrop to the inquisitive, thoughtful lyrics of Joe Casey.

Casey’s lyrics take in everything from anecdotes about Elvis to obscure Irish novels about the unheard conversations of the recently buried. His baritone voice recalls Ian Curtis, his spoken delivery Mark E Smith. The band’s musical influences take in their city’s heritage with nods to MC5 and the Stooges, hints of The Fall, The Raincoats and Pixies and wrap it all together in a style as unique as their onstage appearance – Casey a kind of Executive Belushi figure, a Booze Brother in a cheap suit, older than the hairy dudes behind him, wiser than the crowds in front.

My introduction to the group came when someone I followed on Twitter – I wish I could remember who so I could buy them several rums – linked to the video to the then new single A Private Understanding back in 2017. I was gripped, thrilled and strangely moved by it. Shared it with friends I could trust. We went to see them and missed most of the set because we were eating expensive burgers and had presumed they’d be on late in the evening. The shame of that mistake still haunts me. But we caught enough to know we’d be back. No fast food, all technique.

They’re touring the UK in May. See you there.

 

A brooding synthesizer hum gives way to a swathe of guitars and drums. Named after a Detroit bar, Jumbo’s is a drunken prayer, an empty commitment to not drinking and a grim celebration of knowing that promise will not be fulfilled.

 

With more than a passing nod to early Fall in its title and sound, In My Sphere builds from Bramah-esque spiky guitar lines to a thrilling garage-punk finale, taking in the sights and sounds of the band’s locale, women “fighting over a bottle of wine” etc before providing us with the perfect riposte to critics of Casey’s distinctive vocal style – “no passion, all technique”.

 

Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square is a black comic thriller about dissociation and alcoholism. For the protagonist, Maidenhead represents an escape from the drinking which is symptomatic of the ills of London life as well as a respite from the “dead moods” which accompany it. My tasting notes for the song mention “early R.E.M and Smiths”.

 

Probably the most moving of Protomartyr’s songs – Casey’s tribute to his late mother Ellen sees his elegiac spoken-croon set to a very Joy Division arrangement, trembling drums and tremulous bass plus the added bonus of a fake ending to rival any in music.

 

Pontiac 87 – a guitar riff you’ll be humming for days slams into furious shards of noise whilst Casey recalls a visit to Detroit from the Pope, framing it is a moment to be reminded that people are mostly useless but as Casey himself intones “There’s no use being sad about it, what’s the point of crying about it”.

 

The only song to feature annually in my Most Wrapped each year since it came out, A Private Understanding rides in on the drums from “Maps”, builds with menacing purpose to a Pixies-esque loud/quiet/Mexicali guitar riff whilst referencing ancient Greek philosopher Heraclites the Obscure, the Flint water scandal and the religious visions of Elvis in a meditation on the meaning of truth. Chelsea Dagger it isn’t.

 

Who says music isn’t educational? Once Ian Curtis led the teenage me to Camus and Kafka, more recently Joe Casey led me to Cré na Cille (Graveyard Clay) by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, a comic Irish novel set amongst the conversations of the buried inhabitants of an Irish graveyard. Turns out when you die, you’re still going to be bitching and whining about mundane shit. So much for the promised paradise. And I’ve spent the last five years trying to recall where they’ve half-inched the tune to Caitriona from. So, answers on a postcard to …

 

The Chuckler. Over a relentless, unchanging beat Casey bemoans the state of the world in his usual detached fashion, reflecting on sauerkraut and loneliness-delaying conversations with call centre agents. Laughter in the dark.

 

The words “colicking” and “pique” don’t feature in many pop songs. Casey’s quest for truth in Half Sister takes us from “roman middle-managers” in ancient Palestine to talking horses in Michigan. Time traveling, globe spanning, supernatural, and seemingly fucked, Casey offers us hope in the form of Truth, trying still to reach us.

 

Featuring the late skronk-jazz saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, Processed By The Boys concerns the militarisation of the US Immigration and Customs Agency under President Trump. Recorded before the pandemic and grimly prophetic, this is a warning of impending apocalypse set to a Godspeed-remix of Back in Black. And even better than that ham-fisted description sounds.

 

 

Protomartyr poster 1

 

Protomartyr official website

Protomartyr YouTube Channel

These Hungry Times: Joe Casey artwork/blog

Protomartyr (Wikipedia)

Joe Casey (Wikipedia)

How Protomartyr became one of Detroit’s biggest indie bands in years
Adam Woodhead, Detroit Metro Times, September 2017

State Of Mind: An Interview with Joe Casey
John Freeman, The Quietus, November 2015

Protomartyr biography (AllMusic)

Paul Jenkins is a pop music obsessive living in fear of being found out as the owner of two Tight Fit singles. His opinions on life in general can be gleaned from his Twitter account. He lives in South Wales with his wife, daughter and a collection of Fall gig anecdotes. His other posts on this site are on Arab Strap, Tindersticks, Grandaddy, Fonda 500, Silver Jews, Big Thief.

TopperPost #1,004

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jan 16, 2022

    Any Toppermost which mentions Mairtin O Cadhain and Cre na Ceile is fine with me. Wasn’t expecting to find a reference here – some fine music too.

  2. Wayne Jessup
    Jan 17, 2022

    Excellent ten… seems like one of those bands where everyone would pick a different ten, so well do they work that fine line between idiosyncrasy and universality. Great find w the Ó Cadhain book, I’ll have to hunt that down. The one-two punch of “Modern Business Hymns” and “Bridge & Crown” was the beating heart of that last LP for me.
    Hope that tour comes off and you get to see them (fully). Here’s a marginal quality phone vid of “Pontiac 87” from LA in March 2016. It’s all in the details: Joe Casey in total eye of the hurricane mode, front row going berserk singing the “There’s no use…” section back to him, calmly ignoring the applause at the false ending, then turning to assess his band during the coda, cracking a fresh beer, and giving a satisfied nod at the last note. Epic night.

  3. Dave Scott
    May 5, 2022

    Went to see them twice over the past fortnight. I wish I’d have followed them on the entire tour. Mesmerising stuff. Can’t remember the last time I loved a band so much. Probably Pixies.
    Leicester was astounding. Felt like the best Christmas present I’d ever had. More so than the Nintendo N64 I got back in the day.
    Please get a move on with the new LP boys…
    Very tempted to head over for a couple of dates in Europe later in the year, unless the boys (and Kelley) come back to the UK.
    Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant band.

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